Main entrance. The New Fisherwick Presbyterian Church. Designed by Robert Young. 1905. [Now the Spires Shopping Centre] Junction of Fisherwick Place, Great Victoria Street, Howard Street and Grosvenor Road, Belfast. Photograph and text by Philip V. Allingham 2006. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Built in 1905, the impressive three-storey building across from Belfast's Technical and Academical Institutions was, as its late Victorian-Gothic exterior suggests, originally a church; it was also the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, as is indicated by a plaque on the site:

The building was designed by Robert Young and built at a cost of £70,000. It is loosely styled on the architecture of a Scottish baronial castle and stands on the site of the former Fisherwick Presbyterian Church, which was demolished in 1895 when the congregation moved to its present church on Malone Road. The building was opened in 1905 by the Duke of Argyll and its tower, which houses Belfast's only peal of 12 bells, is modelled on that of St. Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh. The turret clock by Sherman O'Neil was the first in the British Isles to employ electricity to drive the clock and the chiming and carilon parts.

The building's Scottish connection is appropriate since the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is a daughter church of the Church of Scotland. Its roots can be traced back to June 1642, when the first organised Presbyterianism in Ireland had its beginning among Scottish regiments stationed at Carrickfergus just 10 miles north of Belfast on on the shores of Belfast Lough.

From the late 1880s in Belfast and Northern Ireland generally, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was developing a separate sense of itself in light of strengthening nationalist and Catholic "Home rule" sentiments in the south and in Dublin in particular. To its Protestant citizens, Belfast was not merely an industrial and commercial centre, it was also a focal point for Protestant and Unionist feeling. Undoubtedly the decision to tear down the old Fisherwick Presbyterian Church in College Square and replace it with a massive architectural statement conveying the overwhelming confidence of Presbyterianism in Ireland must be viewed in the context of the political and religious partisan feelings of the late 19th c. in Ulster.

In 1900, Sir Thomas Drew was appointed Assessor in the competition for the design of a new Church House and Assembly Hall to be erected for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland on the site of the old Fisherwick Church, that congregation having built itself a Church on Malone Road [south of the City Centre] to designs by S. P. Close. There followed one of the most resounding rows in architectural history. Various thunderous leader appeared in the Irish Builder, and in the British Architect; and several acid letters. The original conditions, it appears, had been drawn up by Robert Young as architect to the Presbyterian Church. It was laid down that the buildings, which were to contain specified accommodation, should cost no more than L30,000. A number of entries were received; but Sir Thomas Drew concluded that compliance with this condition was impracticable, and the competition was abortive, though a young architect named Savage obtained first place. Indeed, Drew described the conditions as being 'in terms of unusual stringency, a distasteful and impossible task'. Instead of revising the terms of the competition, the Church authorities, astoundingly, appointed Robert Young and his partner Mackenzie to erect the buildings as specified—which they did, 'at a cost of about L70,000'!

The Presbyterians, in an unparalleled stroke of ecclesiastical one-upmanship, sought to redress the adverse balance of publicity by letting it be known that the angel's [sic] faces on the building were being ‘specially copied from life.'

When the buildings were opened in 1905, some of the comments were understandably hostile, and due allowance must be made for professional jealousy. There was criticism of the 'Tudor Style, with its sprawling senile arches that resemble nothing so much as a nonagenarian on crutches, its superficial meretriciousness of ornament, its lifeless formalism . . . Standing at a distance . . . one's mind gathers the impression that [the buildings] were designed of greater height, to occupy less space, and had somehow been sat on so that they might squelch out and fill all the interstices of a building front commercially valuable . . . A church is worldly enough to be desirous of pay, but it is unwise to be clamant of it . . . instead of receding, the new buildings make bay window bids for notice.' [quoted from the Irish Builder, 1910, p. 406]. Despite its indignation, the general conclusion of the Irish Builder that the interior was successful, the general design not, seems sound. A Curious glass-roofed amulatory-cum-foyer leads into the hall itself; the latter is polygonal, with two tiers of balconies within a Tudor framework, and art nouveau glass in the central roof-light. (Brett, 58)

Today, the visitor to Belfast would take issue with C. E. Brett's assessment of what is now hardly a "harsh and craggy pile of blackened Scottish-Tudor stone" (Brett, 58), but rather a fascinating adaptation of an old form to a new purpose, "The Spires" being one of the city's most visible and architecturally effective commercial developments. "Blackened" no longer since the general cleaning of Belfast architecture that accompanied the cessation of Ulster's "Troubles" in the 1970s, the shopping-centre is one of the most attractive "blocks" in central Belfast. although the interior would be wholly unrecognizable to C. E. B. Brett, writing in the mid-1960s, his description of the fine exterior stonework is still substantially correct, much more of the detail being discernible now and therefore negating somewhat that architectural writer's negativism:

It is surmounted by a rather squat tower, with two high balconies, topped with a Gothic crown reminiscent of that on St Giles in Edinburgh. There are great recessed oriel windows above the main doorway; and there is much curious carving, of very uneven quality, partly by Edgar Winter and partly by Purdy and Millard. The themes include a number of dragons, apparently expiring in agony, and a very sick eagle in deepest moult, as well as a great number of cherubim and seraphim with coyly drooping eyelids.(48)

Bomb-ravaged in the 1970s like so many other Belfast public buildings, the former administrative headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has been carefully restored, the ground floor of "The Spires" now occupied by small, up-scale shops.

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[You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL.]

References

Brett, Charles Edward Bainbridge. Buildings of Belfast 1700-1914. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967.

"Belfast's Christian Heritage." Belfast: City of Belfast Welcome Centre.


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Last modified 12 September 2006